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Manatee commissioner reaches settlement over an ethics complaint related to a vaccine event

Woman stands at a podium with a microphone in front of her. A man in a suit stands to the left, behind her. Two women sit at a dais, and a group of people sit behind a divider.
screenshot The Florida Channel
Vanessa Baugh speaks to the Florida Ethics Commission in Tallahassee on Jan. 27, 2023. Commissioners voted to accept Baugh's proposed settlement of an $8,000 fine and a public reprimand for scheduling a COVID-19 vaccine for herself and four others at a 2021 event she organized.

Under a deal agreed to by the Florida Ethics Commission, Vanessa Baugh will pay an $8,000 fine and accept a public reprimand.

A Manatee County Commissioner has reached a settlement in an ethics case involving COVID-19 vaccines that drew national attention.

Vanessa Baugh secured COVID-19 vaccine appointments for herself and four others at a site she helped organize in 2021.

The Florida Ethics Commission accepted a deal Friday proposed by Baugh, which will see her pay an $8,000 fine and accept a public reprimand. Under a stipulation in the agreement, Baugh will pay the fine and not be reimbursed by taxpayers.

She could have faced a maximum penalty of $20,000 or removal from office.

Speaking at a meeting in Tallahassee Friday, Ethics Commissioner Wengay Newton, who once represented parts of Manatee County in the Florida House of Representatives, spoke in favor of a stronger penalty — calling the deal with Baugh "a travesty."

"This was not a mistake...it was deliberate and calculated," said Newton.

"Ray Charles can see what went on here. I don't understand it. I do not. And for $8,000, making a deal so we don't go forth and hear entirely what went on and let them confess to some things, but not all — if you're guilty, you're guilty of all of it, not some of it, not part of it."

Baugh, a Republican member of the Commission since 2012, ordered her staff to schedule the vaccine appointments for herself and four political donors, including a Lakewood Ranch developer.

The one-day pop-up event in February 2021 was limited to residents of two ZIP codes in wealthy, predominantly white areas in Baugh's district.

The 3,000 dose event was held not long after vaccines were first released and supplies were still limited.

Gov. Ron DeSantis also drew criticism at the time over the fact that some campaign contributors lived in the area, with DeSantis later stressing that a high concentration of seniors living in the area was the reason for the event.

But Newton still wasn't accepting that argument Friday, continuing to speak on behalf of the area's Black neighborhoods.

"I was down there, with the governor, trying to open up testing sites. I was down there, trying to get vaccines for all these people that were dying. I heard about people not being able to get it cause they look like me," Newton said.

Baugh apologized on Friday, calling the incident a learning experience.

“This has been a major experience for me, one that I’ve learned a lot from. It’s been a tough experience for Manatee County. I always have tried to be a good commissioner,” said Baugh.

Manatee County Commissioners voted in Feb. 2021 to allow Baugh to keep her position as board chair, and the Manatee County Sheriff's Office later decided that criminal charges would not be filed.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.